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Editorial: Progress on Iran and China

Dec. 1, 2013 - 01:00PM   |  
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Itís been a turbulent few weeks for the Obama administrationís foreign policy, but recent moves on China and Iran are encouraging.

After Beijing unilaterally established an air defense identification zone over some 1 million square miles over the East China Sea, the region wondered how Washington would respond.

The answer came as two unarmed B-52 bombers flew through the zone, declining Chinese identification calls because planes in international airspace are not obligated to do so. The bombers, and an aircraft carrier, were part of a long-planned exercise, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed the US wonít change how it operates in the region. Japanese and South Korean planes followed suit.

On the eve of Vice President Joe Bidenís visit to Japan, China and South Korea, Beijing should recognize its overstep in seeking to assume control of disputed territory. It says it tracked planes flying through the zone and would continue to monitor flight. But itís unclear when, not if, China will begin exerting control over the vast seascape it claims.

The administrationís other foreign policy gain was the preliminary deal negotiated by the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany, with Iran to temporarily halt Iranís nuclear program while the parties try to forge a lasting agreement.

Despite criticism to the contrary, itís as good a deal as possible under the circumstances, by suspending Iranís rapidly advancing bomb program and opening its nuclear facilities to unprecedented international inspection, in exchange for a narrowly defined and modest easing of sanctions.

The aim: A taste of relief from crushing sanctions will be enough to convince Iran to trade its nuclear program entirely for a complete end to sanctions.

One reason Iran is so close to the bomb is the bad calls made over the past decade, including the Bush administrationís 2005 verdict that Iran wasnít developing a nuclear weapon, followed by years of sanctions that lacked bite until only recently.

Supporters of the deal say a diplomatic solution is the only way to stop Iran, as it will soon have all it needs to build a bomb. But critics, especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say the deal is naive. He wants even tougher sanctions and continues to assert his nationís right to attack Iran, if necessary, to stop its program.

If negotiations fail, sanctions would return in force and all options would be back on the table. But most experts say an attack would only delay Iranís nuclear efforts and spark unintended consequences.

The fact is, Tehran has incentive to make a deal. Its new president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected to improve the nationís deteriorating economy, and ending sanctions is the only solution to its troubles. But given Iranís track record of lying, the P5+1 must be tough to get a meaningful and verifiable deal.

The US Congress also must play a responsible role. Those who seek additional new sanctions must see that doing so now would kill a deal that may be the last chance to deter Iran without resorting to military action. Indeed, lawmakers can help the presidentís cause by pledging tougher sanctions should talks fail to deliver a lasting agreement.

The international communityís line with Iran can signal to others, including China, against choosing a path outside international norms. The question is whether China, one of the P5+1, links Tehran talks to US-led opposition to its Pacific land grab.

The US has long urged Beijing to shift from its transactional foreign policy, in which China links disparate issues on a tit-for-tat basis. Bidenís message to China is that it has much to gain by being enmeshed in the global order as a stabilizing regional and global force, instead of being an unpredictable irritant.

In the end, Beijing must realize it depends as much on stability in the gulf for oil for its economy as it does stability in Asia for its trade.

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